‘A Painful Case’ by James Joyce

To Chapelizod’s “most quiet quarters” now (I lived in Dublin in my twenties) and Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico’s late evening walks. Joyce lays the ground with exacting authority: Duffy’s aloofness and self-regard are tenuous buffers to a solitary, regimented existence (have a read of the description of Duffy’s monastic room, the assiduous itemisation of a solitary life, the lens moving closer and closer in…). The principal characters, too, are carefully and finely woven – this delicate work (although there’s a wonderful instinctual ease to Joyce’s prose here too) paves the way for subtle, human paradox. Duffy is haughty and dry – we’re told about his “unamiable mouth” and the “harsh” character of his face – but then we’re made to dwell on his gaze: “there was no harshness in his eyes which… gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others…” Similarly, Mrs. Sinico – a forty-three-year-old mother whose husband captains a boat which sails to and from Holland – is revealed by the almost anatomical investigation of her eyes: “their gaze began with a defiant note but was confused by what seemed a deliberate swoon of the pupil into the iris, revealing for an instant a temperament of great sensibility.” Mr. Duffy’s final wanderings in the park – that beautifully realised transition from age-old defensiveness into a hard and honest accounting of his “moral nature” – is a remarkable passage. All the while, below the crest of the hill, Dublin “burns redly and hospitably.”    

First published in Dubliners, Grant Richards, 1914, and widely republished since, including by Penguin Classics, 2000

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